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Award-Winning Novelist Edwidge Danticat Blasts “Discriminatory and Brutal” U.S. Asylum Policy in Death of Uncle

StoryDecember 01, 2004
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We speak with award-winning Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat about the death of her uncle in a South Florida detention facility. Father Joseph Dantica died in U.S. custody after he fled Haiti to seek political asylum in the U.S. [includes rush transcript}

Human rights and humanitarian groups are calling for a full-scale investigation regarding the Nov. 3 death in a South Florida detention facility of an 81-year-old Haitian pastor four days after he had flown to the United States and asked for political asylum.

The Rev. Joseph Dantica, who had worked in Bel-Air, one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest districts, for some 50 years, flew to Miami with his son, Maxo, on Oct. 29, after hiding for several days from members of an armed gang who had threatened to kill him.

He arrived at Miami International Airport with a multiple-entry visa stamped in his passport. Dantica was asked how long he intended to remain in the United States. Unable to give a definite date, Dantica and his son said they feared they would be killed if they returned and asked for political asylum.

At that point, both Dantica and his son were arrested. Joseph Dantica died five days later.

Datica’s niece is the award-winning Haitian-American novelist and author, Edwidge Danticat. In a blistering column in the New York Times, she wrote: “Like the claims from Cubans, Haitian asylum claims should be considered fairly and humanely so that calamities like my uncle’s flight and eventual death in the custody of the Homeland Security Department are never repeated.”

  • Edwidge Danticat, niece of the Rev. Joseph Dantica. She is an award-winning Haitian-American novelist. She is the author of several books including “Breath, Eyes, Memory”, “The Farming of the Bones” and “Krik? Krak!” Her latest book is titled “The Dew Breaker.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, we are also joined in this studio by Edwidge Danticat. She is the world renowned Haitian American author. Her latest book is The Dew Breaker. She also has written, among other books, Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak! which was a National Book Award finalist. Her uncle was also a priest, died at the Krome Detention Facility in south Florida, 81 years old. Human rights and humanitarian groups are calling for a full scale investigation into his November 3 death. Edwidge Danticat, can you talk about your Uncle Joseph?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, first of all, thank you for having me and congratulations Father Jean-Juste on your release. My uncle, on October 24, was in his church in Bel-Air in what was a very well reported, even in the mainstream press, operation in collaboration with Haitian police and U.N. forces. They came and basically took over the church and shot at some people in the surrounding area. And there were some young men in the area that came soon after and threatened to kill him so he went into hiding for three days in the neighborhood. And he was smuggled out of Bel-Air by friends. He had been coming here since the 1970’s to visit, but had never wanted to stay in the United States, and was most recently here visiting with my father who is ill and here in New York in August. And so had decided to come here with his son, who had also been threatened. And when he got to the Miami International Airport they asked him “How long will you be staying?” He decided that in this moment he wouldn’t go back, at around the same time that they prescribed and told the truth and said he wanted what might be possible as temporary asylum. So he was told he would have to be detained even though he was 81, and spoke through a voice box and went through a speedy process at the airport with an interpreter even though they didn’t understand very much what he was saying through the voice box and after spending something like they arrived at 3:30 in the afternoon, stayed at the airport until about noon the next day, was taken to Krome. And on the following Monday we got a lawyer and were supposed to have a credible fear hearing which was postponed until the next morning. And during that time he became ill around was taken to the hospital and died at Jackson Memorial Hospital on Wednesday night. So within five days of coming here he died in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for now?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, our main goal is to see that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I think this case highlights a policy that is specific to the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers and refugees. You have an extreme case of someone very old that had a visa, a passport, a history of coming here and was still treated that way. I think it very telling about the way that Haitian asylum seekers are generally treated when they come to the United States. So we are calling for an investigation and also a thorough review of the process and want to bring attention to this policy which, over decades has proven to be cruel and inhumane and particularly targeting Haitians. You have the case, which we can do something about, a young man David Joseph who has been at Krome through his adulthood and has had many trials and is still being detained. So case after cases like that where you have a policy that drives people away and then will shut them out.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember going with my mother to Krome following a protest during the first coup against President Aristide where hundreds of people marched to Krome because so many Haitians were being held there. That was more than 10 years ago. And now would you say refugees are increasing after Aristide was removed in February?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: You have this example that even as February 29 was approaching people were being deported that very week, even as U.S. citizens were being withdrawn from Haiti. So I think there is a tightening of that if we are not seeing more, the situation is so confused, it is so difficult that there is a cordon almost around Haiti, keeping people out. So if we are not seeing more the policies are tightening and once people are here as we saw in the case of my uncle even if people do make it here immediately return or there are so many ways to that they try to keep people, even after this extraordinary disaster of Hurricane Jean but the policies are just very brutal in the sense that it is keeping people in.

AMY GOODMAN: And compared to other immigrants who have fled both natural disasters and political in the area?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Extraordinarily discriminatory and again brutal. You have the case of, recently, the renewal of temporary asylum status for Honduran and Guatemalan person victims of Hurricane Mitch, 200,000 people homeless, and we can’t get temporary asylum for 20,000 Haitians so it is a very brutal policy to us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Father Jean-Juste for joining us from Port-au-Prince on your release yesterday after seven weeks in a Haitian jail, and Edwidge Danticat, the great writer and her latest book The Dew Breaker. She has a blistering piece in the New York Times about the treatment of Haitian refugees, and we will link to that from our site.

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